One of the books on my first 10 for 2012 list was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In reading this book (as well as the other two books in the trilogy), I ventured into the mostly uncharted genres (for my personal literary preferences) of young-adult fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. However, I was not disappointed, and The Hunger Games exceeded my expectations. I believe the series will be renowned for years to come, though I personally don’t feel that the themes of good and evil, redemption, and final triumph are quite as epic as those of the Harry Potter series.
The series centers around the female protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic North America, known as the nation of Panem. The affluent, modern Capitol is surrounded by twelve districts, each of which has a specific trade by which they support the Capitol. Because of a past uprising against the Capitol during which the Capitol defeated the districts, the districts must now be constantly reminded that such rebellion is never to be tolerated. One such reminder is the nationally-televised, enforced-viewing of the annual “Hunger Games,” during which a boy and a girl aged 12-18 are selected from each district (an event called “The Reaping”) and all 24 young people are placed in an arena. There, they must fight to the death until one victor is named. Since most of the districts are kept on the brink of starvation, the winning district is rewarded with an abundance of food.
Collins masterfully weaves the theme of hunger into her stories, but even more depicts what a “big brother” type of state rule has the potential of becoming if left unchecked and given unquestioned power. Similarly, she shows the power of hope and heroism when shown to people in desperation. Though the story contains themes of human tragedy and brutality, the overall tone is positive, reflected mostly through Katniss Everdeen.
The Hunger Games
(Warning: semi-spoilers ahead if you don’t want to know anything about the books)
In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ relatively happy life in District 12 is outlaid and she and her family prepare to attend “The Reaping,” where the year’s Hunger Games participants are selected. At 12 years old, her sister Primrose (“Prim”) will be entering her name in the drawing for the first time. However, at 12, the children only submit one entry, whereas Katniss and other older teens may submit multiple entries. The additional entries allow their family to receive additional food rations. To everyone’s shock, Prim’s name is selected as the female contestant for the district (essentially a death sentence). Perhaps just as shocking, Katniss steps forward to volunteer as Prim’s replacement. This is permitted and she is then offered as District 12’s official contestant. The male contestant is drawn: Peeta Mellark.
As Peeta and Katniss travel to the Capitol for training and then the game, they interact with their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. Each team can have a mentor who is selected from the district’s past victors. During the game, the mentors are provided “gifts” that sponsors from the district pay for. However, District 12 has only one previous victor. During that time, Katniss also observes Peeta’s remarkable kindness toward her and assumes it is his way of making her emotionally weak before he must eventually kill her in the arena.
The games begin, and Peeta and Katniss both survive the first days. It soon become evident to Katniss that Peeta’s affections are real, but she is unsure how to deal with them as her best friend at home is Gale, a faithful hunting companion. She catches on that she will receive gifts through their mentor if she returns Peeta’s affections, and so does so to keep them both alive.
By the end of the game, Peeta and Katniss are the only remaining contestants, though both have attempted to save other lives, as well. The normal rule is that only one victor can emerge. At the end, Katniss and Peeta vow to poison themselves if they must kill one another. The capitol announces a sudden rule change, and both are declared victors, though Peeta emerges losing a leg. The Capitol views Katniss’ actions as promoting rebellion and they must decide how to punish her actions.
Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games ended. As it becomes evident that Katniss’ actions in the game have sparked enough hope for some of the districts to begin a rebellion, she faces the wrath of President Snow, which eventually consummates in a special version of the Hunger Games. Rather than selecting new contestants from the districts, the pool of contestants will be drawn from previous victors of the Hunger Games. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss must participate, along with Peeta. President Snow warns Katniss that she must prove that her previous act was out of love, not rebellion. The story ends somewhat unexpectedly, as does the game. Katniss and several others are rescued by the rebel forces (led by the secretly existing District 13), but Peeta is captured by the Capitol.
Katniss is asked to become the Mockingjay–the symbol of the rebellion to the people. She eventually accepts, but feels she is being used by Disctrict 13, much like she felt she was being used by the Capitol. She also realizes that Peeta is being tortured and brainwashed by the Capitol, and feels the weight of responsibility for his suffering as she realizes President Snow is trying to use him against her. True to his character, Peeta risks his life to warn Disctict 13 on live television of an upcoming bombing, just in time. Eventually, plans are made to rescue Peeta from the Capitol, but not before the government has succeeded in some of their brainwashing attempts. Plans are made for a coup on the Capitol, but it doesn’t happen without some interesting twists and tragedies. The story ends, not completely triumphant, but also not completely tragic.
The series was fast-paced, compelling, and easy to read quickly. Collins also integrates themes and characters from Greek mythology, using them in some of the symbols and names. Initially, I was not planning to read the series because it seemed too dark (the idea of children fighting to the death), but I believe the author portrays this in a way that is both realistic and thoughtful, while serving the purpose to convey an overall message without being too extremely negative.
Interestingly, I learned that I had encountered Suzanne Collins’ writing before. She wrote part of the TV series Little Bear (based on Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear books), which is one of two TV shows my 3-year-old daughter occasionally watches via our Roku..